We welcome you back to this annual rite as we pay our respects to our ancestors, friends, and family members, those who once walked the path of life with us. Memories flood through us as our eyes mist up and tears run down our face. We miss our loved ones so much! What would we do just to see them again! Is it even possible to see them again?
Of course, the last question is the really big one. Is there life after death and if so, will we be reunited with our loved ones? Let me share a true story with you, one that occurred in my first year as a rabbi, almost four decades ago. I was the new assistant rabbi in a very large congregation in Philadelphia. Part of my daily routine was visiting the local hospitals and seeing all our congregants who were patients. One afternoon, while visiting Abington Hospital, I was surprised to see an elderly gentleman whom we will call Isidor Goodman. I had befriended him and his wife at the synagogue as they were regular service attenders. I cannot forget him because he had a cultured British accent (being from London), had a white handlebar moustache, and was the epitome of a gentleman. After he asked me to sit down beside him, Mr. Goodman recounted an experience he had the night before, one that changed his life forever.
Mr. Goodman went into cardiac arrest. From outside of his body, he saw the doctors and nurses working on him but curiously, he thought, he was at peace. He was attracted to a bright light and walked towards it. Welcoming him were his mother, father, grandparents, and many aunts and uncles. He was overjoyed to see them. As he approached them, walking into their arms, the light began to recede and soon faded away. He no longer visualized his family and suddenly opened his eyes and realized he was alive. When he died a year later, he was not afraid. He was certain that a new life awaited him after he died and that he would be met by all his deceased loved ones.
Mr. Goodman had what we call a near death experience. There have been thousands of similar reports from all over the world since I spoke with Mr. Goodman over thirty-five years ago. Our ancestors recognized this phenomenon as Jewish texts recount such experiences. We read in the Zohar (1, 217b), “At the hour of a man’s departure this world, his father and relatives gather around him, and he sees them and recognizes them, and likewise all with whom he associated in this world, they accompany his soul to the place where it is to abide.” In another part of the Zohar (III, 53a) we read, “When a man is on the point of leaving this world…the Shechinah (God’s presence) shows herself to him and then the soul goes out in joy to meet the Shechinah.”
We have read accounts such as these from all over the world in the literature of all the world’s religions. The near death experience is a cross cultural, universal phenomenon. It is not limited to time or space. While we cannot prove in a scientific manner that these near death experiences have objective reality, they are so subjectively real and so ubiquitous that we cannot easily dismiss them. I certainly would like to believe that it is real and that we are welcomed by our loved ones as we walk through the aura of a bright and warm light. It eliminates all fear and dread of what awaits us.
I have been with many people at the moment of death. I can report that, for almost all of us, death is peaceful. It is a calm and restful state. Over 2,200 years ago, Wisdom of Solomon (3:2) affirmed, “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise, they did appear to die, but they are at peace.” Our loved ones who lie before us today are at peace. Their souls are with God. My prayer for us today is that they will be there to welcome us when it is our turn to depart from this world and we are laid to rest among them.